Flytings

Arnold Rattenbury

Old men can be buggers at hanging on. Hamish Henderson, who died last March at the age of 82, hung on firmly through three books, edited by others: his writings on ‘Song, Folk and Literature’, collected as Alias MacAlias (1992), a selected letters, The Armstrong Nose (1996) – both edited by Alec Finlay – and Collected Poems and Songs, edited by Raymond Ross. All three books reveal Henderson, by then in his seventies and eighties, as he chose to be revealed. His only other publications had been fifty years earlier: Ballads of World War Two, collected and sometimes also written by himself, in 1947, and Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica (1948). This last, honouring the soldier victims of desert war, ‘our own and the others’ as his dedication put it, ends its tenth elegy with a pledge:

Run, stumble and fall in our desert of failure,
impaled, unappeased. And inhabit that
desert
of canyon and dream – till we carry to the living
blood, fire and red flambeaux of death’s proletariat.
The iron in your arms! At last, spanning this history’s
apollyon chasm, proclaim them the reconciled.

The Elegies earned wide critical acclaim and the first Somerset Maugham Award; but the practically unnoticed Ballads heralded a lifetime of folksong collection, performance, encouragement, creation and scholarship.

You got your copy of the Ballads by joining ‘The Lili Marlene Club of Glasgow’, a device enabling Henderson to avoid being prosecuted for indecency for publishing unexpurgated texts – ‘The Ballad of King Faruk and Queen Farida’, for instance, with its chorus ‘O you can’t fuck Farida if you don’t pay Faruk’ (and that’s the least of it). To those of us who had served in the Forces and had heard such things, to have them collected seemed fun, not the start of a lifetime project. A student of modern languages at Cambridge before the war, Henderson had entered it already fluent in French and German – he had helped a Quaker organisation pull people out of Nazi Germany – and his Italian became so fluent during the desert campaigns that he was made the Highland Division’s chief interrogator of prisoners and was later seconded to liaise with Italian partisans after the mainland European landings. For the Ballads he could therefore scour the repertoires not only of his beloved Highlanders and other Allied swaddies, but of Afrika Corps prisoners and French (Tunisian Gaullist) forces. Spanish and modern Greek (he had the classics of course) were soon added, as well as smatterings of Balkan and Scandinavian languages: the Elegies hint at some Egyptian, too. This didn’t seem odd to the loose-knit gang around Our Time, the wartime and immediately postwar socialist journal to which both Henderson and I belonged. Among our seniors and mentors there – the First World War poet Edgell Rickword, Britten’s librettist Montagu Slater, the anti-racist francophile Nancy Cunard – was the folklorist A.L. Lloyd, who had swung about as collector through the whaling fleet, bushrangers in the Outback, American immigrants, mining communities worldwide, Romanian, Bulgarian, Hungarian and Russian peasants. Even among ourselves the Australian poet John Manifold, also an ex-service linguist and ballad collector, would, like Hamish, return to his homeland and there collect and contribute to a tradition (his work was performed and published as Bandicoot Ballads). Our optimism was immense. After all, we had, against all the odds of conservatism, just won a war against Fascism. The Labour Government seemed, like nationalisation, a next step. In those heady days an interest in folklore didn’t distinguish Hamish: each one of us was obsessed with one or another means of popular communication. Probably what distinguished him most was his sheer size and energy.

You are not logged in